This week, the adult Sunday School class I teach has started our reading of Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction by Bryan M. Litfin (Brazos, 2007). Apart from the book’s content and readability, I couldn’t help but be attracted to a book on the early fathers by the one other person (to my knowledge) to do the DTS-UVA double-dip!
One thing to which I want to introduce my class is the issue of the extent of theological diversity in early Christianity. Pious Bible readers often read Scripture at a historically “flat” level, meaning that Matthew’s Gospel must be understood to be saying the exact same thing or to use the same terms in the same way as, say, the Fourth Gospel or the Pauline Epistles. Without denying a real unity among the NT canon, I do believe, quite strongly, that attention to the differences among the various biblical writers can actually enrich our understanding of the biblical text. After all, even a quick glance at early non-canonical Christian texts reveals an enormous theological diversity among those who characterized themselves as Christians as early as the second century, and we find roots of this diversity, I suggest, in the NT itself.
To help make this issue of diversity come alive, one activity that I will suggest to my class (after furnishing my own example) is to print out a blank map of the Roman Empire and then locate different NT and early Christian writings to different cities or areas (they can find this information, for instance, in their study Bible notes). As with dating, issues of provenance are often debated, but for the purpose of this exercise we need not insist on exactitude. Why is this useful? To give just one example: we’re starting off with a study of Ignatius of Antioch. At first blush, Antioch might not hold much meaning for many of my students. But when we note that Matthew’s Gospel, presumed to have been written by and for Jewish Christians, is generally held to have originated in the vicinity of Antioch — as well as the early Christian writing the Didache (another heavily Jewish document which often makes reference to Matthean tradition) — we can identify the existence of a Christian community with strong Jewish roots in that city, which corroborates the references we find in Acts (e.g., 11:26, 13:2). Tensions about the role of the Law within the Antiochene Jewish-Christian community appear not only in the writings of Ignatius (e.g., Magn. 10) but in the NT itself (e.g., Gal 2.1-10). Not only does this background about these tensions illuminate our reading of Ignatius, but it sheds light on the unique perspective of certain NT documents (in this case, Matthew), helping us to understand them as locally contextual texts (though they come to mean much more than that, they certainly do not mean less). And, in so doing, we are on our way to being more observant, more careful students of Scripture.